June 5, 1927 – Dec. 9, 2013
John J. Phelan, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for mayor of Buffalo in 1977 who remained a powerful influence for many years in government and civic affairs, died Monday in Buffalo General Medical Center after a long illness. He was 86.
Tall, good looking and witty, Mr. Phelan loomed as a major political figure during the 1970s as he held top legal posts with influential Republicans, including Sen. Jacob K. Javits and State Senate Majority Leader Earl W. Brydges. Though he never succeeded in winning public office – finishing third in the historic mayoral race of 1977 that elected James D. Griffin to his first of four terms – Mr. Phelan nevertheless seemed to dominate many of the headlines of his time.
“John was a passionate politician who loved government and being in the middle of the action,” recalled George Borrelli, retired political reporter for The Buffalo News, who chronicled Phelan’s activities for many years. “He was bright, resourceful and always aspired to hold political office – though he was unsuccessful.”
Borrelli also recalled him as more than a lawyer or even a politician, but as someone who championed the arts and culture community.
Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Phelan graduated from Brooklyn Preparatory High School before serving as a Navy aviator at Pensacola Naval Station during World War II. After the war, he attended College of the Holy Cross and Niagara University, and earned a law degree from St. John’s Law School.
He returned to Western New York for stints at the law firm of Moot Sprague and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office before entering Republican politics. As counsel to Brydges for nine years, he emerged as a key Albany figure during the era of former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, crafting major pieces of legislation such as the law creating Artpark in Lewiston.
In 1972, he sought the GOP nomination to the State Senate, losing to Assemblyman James T. McFarland in a hotly contested effort.
But it may have been his GOP mayoral candidacy for which he is best remembered. That year saw a plethora of candidates entering the field to succeed the retiring Stanley Makowski, eventually boiling down to Mr. Phelan, Democrat Arthur O. Eve and Conservative Griffin in the general election. Mr. Phelan finished third in a sign of things to come for Republican mayoral candidates in Buffalo, but at the time won the endorsement of The News.
“Mr. Phelan combines intelligence, vision, good humor, compassion, a sense of proportion and an ability to innovate,” the newspaper wrote. “He appears genuinely to believe that Buffalo can regain its former vitality, and his statements show, in our view, the best grasp of the city’s assets.”
Mr. Phelan also left a major mark in civic affairs, especially as a preservation advocate. He served as president of the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, working on major preservation projects like the Richardson Complex, Guaranty Building and Darwin Martin House.
He was active in Housing Opportunities Made Equal and the Irish Classical Theatre. “He was a great supporter of the arts and all things Buffalo,” said his daughter Trish Phelan. “He loved ‘his town,’ and that came from a boy from Brooklyn.”
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, the former Mary McCartney; two sons, John J. Jr. and James P.; and two other daughters, Therese and Kathleen.
A memorial Mass will be scheduled.
– Robert J. McCarthy